Gordo’s has its fans—I’m just not one of them

11 Jul

1423 Solano Ave., Albany, CA

Bring up favorite burrito places in the Bay Area, and you’re sure to get strong opinions. Many are quick to name Gordo’s, as is evident by the long lines there almost any day, sometimes stretching out the door and around the corner. Kylie’s friend Rachel loves Gordo’s, and I’ve heard of people driving in from El Cerrito just to get takeout from there.

The original plan was to visit Kathmandu Restaurant, but it was inexplicably closed again, so we went to the other side of Solano Avenue to Gordo Taqueria and joined the throng of families, business people, and workers in coveralls who were patiently waiting in line to place their orders. Because it’s summer, lots of elementary kids were there with their parents, whereas during the school year, the only kids there on a weekday are students from nearby Albany High. One of the boys behind me in line yelled down the street to his dad for his cell so he could phone in their order because he didn’t want to wait in the long line. I don’t even know if Gordo’s takes phone orders, but his dad ignored his request. Despite the length of the line, it only took ten minutes to reach the spot where the burrito assembly began, and the guys behind the counter were quick and efficient.

Gordo painting

Gordo’s decor

Our group consisted of George, his son Dylan (who just graduated from college and is home for the summer), Dave, and me. (Kylie had not been awake long enough to feel ready for lunch.) When we sat down, I mentioned that I hadn’t been to Gordo’s in over ten years, to which Dylan responded that since he’d been home (five days?), he’d been nowhere else. George admitted that Gordo’s was the favorite of everyone in his family except him.

Gordo George's plate

George’s lunch

George got the chile verde platter, which was a pretty good deal. It was basically everything that would have been a burrito but separate, and two tortillas instead of one. Because the place is chiefly takeout, everything is packaged to go. So George had to eat his meal out of a Styrofoam container even though we snagged one of the two only four-person tables in the tiny dining area.

Gordo DP's super burrito

Dave’s super burrito

Dylan seemed quite happy with his burrito, and Dave had no complaints about his. I, on the other hand, had a few problems. First, every bite resulted in tortilla lining the roof of my mouth, and I spent an inordinate amount of time scraping it off with my tongue as unobtrusively as possible while attempting to participate in the conversation. Dave concluded that my gummy tortilla was the result of being over-steamed. In addition, even though I had opted for salsa and additional hot sauce, the burrito was pretty bland. Certainly edible but disappointing. Sorry, Rachel—that’s the way I feel.

So I don’t really see the need to return to Gordo’s for another ten years, but it doesn’t look like it will hurt their business because the faithful will return, and the lines will continue.

 

 

 

 

Renee’s has high quality (with prices to match)

7 Jul
Renee's veggie potsticker

veggie potsticker with menu in background

It was the least likely day of the year to lunch at Renee’s. Everyone else in America was eating hot dogs, watermelon, and burgers off the grill. After all, one doesn’t really think of celebrating the Fourth of July by going out for Chinese food. We were the only diners there for most of the lunch hour. And I guess because it was a holiday, the lunch menu wasn’t available, so we ordered off the dinner menu, which contributed to it being a rather pricey lunch.

Our waitperson turned out to be Renee herself. She was quite attentive and never let my glass of water get empty, which automatically scored lots of points with me.

Renee's bathroom

Inside Renee’s restroom

The décor at Renee’s is elegant, the mechanical woven fans that put on a little overhead show being the highlight. (I recorded it but couldn’t get it to upload to accompany my post. Sorry!)The covers of the menus were woven as well, and the pages were rice paper. I also did not spot a single typo, which speaks volumes for a Chinese restaurant. Classical choral music played over the sound system, and at one point I heard “Ave Maria,” which was an incongruous piece of music to hear on the Fourth of July, but it’s not like we were standing around the barbecue. The bathroom was done quite tastefully and was clean as well.

chicken Iron Plate

We ordered the veggie potstickers (6 for $11), which were piping hot and pretty good. I ordered the orange beef ($14), which was listed as one of the house specialties and was wonderful. Dave ordered a chicken dish off the “Iron Plates” section of the menu, which came out on a sizzling hot plate ($15.50). It was good but rather plain, though he particularly liked the mushrooms. Kylie declared the string  beans “delicious as always,” ($11.50). Renee’s is Kylie’s favorite Chinese restaurant, and this is the dish she orders most often.

It was a lovely meal, and the service was excellent. But everything was expensive, so lunch—without any dessert or drinks other than hot tea and water—set us back a pretty penny. If you’re on a budget, it may not be the best place to have lunch. But if money is no object, I highly recommend Renee’s.

 

Lao Thai Kitchen quirky but not bad

30 Jun

Lao Thai Kitchen awningIt was a Wednesday, and the next Solano lunch spot on the list was Kathmandu. Outside, the open sign was not lit up, but the posted hours didn’t say anything about being closed on Wednesday, so I tried the door, which was unlocked. It was dark inside, and nobody was in the dining room. Walking toward the kitchen, I called out to see if anyone was back there. A filled trash bag sat on the floor of the kitchen, and the back door was propped open, but nobody answered. It was kind of spooky, and I was too hungry to investigate further anyway. So this is another mystery that may never be solved…

Next door is Lao Thai Kitchen, so we went there instead. This was the third Thai place I’d been to on Solano, and I wanted to see how it compared. The first thing that struck me about the place was how quiet it was. No music. And there was only one other table of diners there for lunch. The next thing I noticed was how rough around the edges everything looked. Handwritten signs were taped to the windows, and a safe appeared to be secured to the wall with duct tape. No corporate menus or fancy food trends here.

Lao Thai view from my seat

the view from my seat (note tape holding in what looks like a safe)

There was one man who seated us, served us, and cleared away our plates. He was somewhat elderly and his energy level was extremely low. He spoke as if he might slip into a coma at any moment. But he managed fine. The only clue that anyone else worked there was a woman’s voice emanating from the kitchen in a tone that sounded somewhat bossy, but of course I have no idea what she was saying since I speak neither Thai nor Lao.

I was disappointed when our waiter told me they were out of Thai iced coffee, but I’m sure I didn’t need all those calories anyway. We shared an order of fresh spring rolls, which I thought were quite good. Dave’s spicy basil chicken smelled wonderful when it arrived a few minutes later. And it was pretty good. The problem, I think, was that because Dave is trying to limit his carbs these days, so he passed on the rice. I believe had he ordered it with rice, the sauce wouldn’t have seemed too salty or spicy. So I blame Dave.

My pad thai came a good eight minutes later. I just kept eating the spring rolls while Dave ate his entrée. (I ate more than half, but Dave wasn’t that hungry anyway.) My dish was good. It wasn’t gloppy like pad thai can sometimes be. I would have liked some chopped peanuts on top, though.Lao Thai window sign

I ran out of water briefly, but our waiter refilled it without my having to ask for it.

I totally forgot to check out the bathroom, and for that I apologize.

Lao Thai Kitchen is not going to be featured in a glossy food magazine any time soon, but the food was good, the service was satisfactory, and the place looked clean. I personally found the homemade touches kind of endearing. And if quiet is what you crave, this might be the place you want.

The Story behind Shepard’s 36 Stories

26 Jun

36 storiesIn the Bay Area, there are so many theater companies that I can’t be season subscribers to them all. But occasionally some of them collaborate and produce something truly special. As a celebration of Sam Shepard’s 70th birthday, Magic Theatre is sponsoring a series of works called Sheparding America. One of those pieces is 36 Stories by Sam Shepard, which is an ambitious adaptation of an assortment of short stories culled from five of Shepard’s books and strung together rather masterfully for the stage in classic Word for Word style.

The soul behind this piece of theater is Amy Krossow, who worked on it for two years, reading and rereading Shepard’s stories, putting them in groups and finding common themes, cobbling together parts of stories to make one play. She centered it on a traveling writer who attempts to write and gets stuck, then starts over. At the heart of the play is a story that Shepard himself broke into five pieces about a head that’s been separated from its body.

The cast is first rate. Four of them play multiple parts, all so distinctly it seems as though the audience sees twenty different actors on stage rather than five. Carl Lumbly, who has done solid work on television, including Alias, is a marvelous voice for the Head as well as an incredible hawk. Delia MacDougall also shows great range in her portrayals of both a mercenary and a dead mother. JoAnne Winter, who is also one of Word for Word’s artistic directors, provided some humor as a waitress and a woman driving her mother’s dead ashes to her sister’s. One of my favorite scenes was this same character who comes upon an injured hawk in the road and doesn’t know what to do. Patrick Alparone is charming and provides musical accompaniment on his guitar as well. Ron Gnapp plays the writer and serves as the central character who dreams up the stories we see.

The concept was inspired, and the execution was a beautifully woven tapestry of Shepard’s prose. Kudos all around.

Almost Bowl’d over

21 Jun
Bowl'd fork on wall close-up

Huge fork hanging on wall

I had eaten at Bowl’d on Solano Avenue a few times over a year ago with mixed feelings, so I did not have high expectations when we lunched there last week. But I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised.

For some reason I had neglected to tuck my little Lunching Down Solano notebook in my backpack, so I had to scrounge around for something to write my notes on. Luckily I had a little Weight Watchers tracker, which I never actually use to track my food. (I always have good intentions when I leave my meeting Saturday morning, but usually by Saturday afternoon, I’ve already eaten something that I have no idea how to track, so I give up.) So for once, I was actually recording food choices in the tracker, but I didn’t calculate points.

Dave's pork ramen @ Bowl'd

Ramen with pork and egg

We arrived at 12:30 and got menus and hot tea fairly quickly. It took a long time to get our water, though. My daughter is always excited when vegetarian pot stickers are available. So we ordered the fried vegetable dumplings as our appetizer. Kylie got a sizzling rice dish called  bipimbop, which sparked a whole conversation about Baby Bop, Barney the purple dinosaur’s sidekick on the sickly sweet kiddy TV show back in the 90s. Dave had printed up a sign that he affixed to the inside of our station wagon that shared with the world his feelings: “Death to Baby Bop!” I’m pretty sure our neighbors thought we were evil.

We got our dumplings at 12:45, which was after the diners to our left were served, the ones who came in after we did. Not that we were keeping track or anything…The dumplings were quite hot and tasted good, but they were a little too crispy for me. Dave and Kylie were not put off by the crispiness at all. At half the size, they were quite adorable as well. (The dumplings, not my husband and daughter. Although, my husband and daughter are actually quite adorable.)Bowl'd side dishes

Along with our entrees, we were given seven little side dishes to share: cabbage kimchi, tofu kimchi, seaweed, pickled radish, broccoli, potato salad, and something I couldn’t figure out. Dave did verify that the red and white dish was potato salad, which didn’t strike me as particularly Korean, but what do I know? I tried it all except the potato salad (it may have had mayo in it)* but really just liked the broccoli. Kylie loved her dish that had mushrooms and what looked like quinoa. Dave and I were both quite happy with our spicy ramen dishes. The broth was particularly rich and flavorful, and the big bowl of noodles and beef was definitely satisfying.

Bowl'd bathroom mirrorI am not a fan of their slippery stainless steel chopsticks, though. Now I’m no expert, but I can certainly hold my own using wooden chopsticks. But my noodles slid and splashed back into my bowl almost as often as they made it into my mouth, causing dark broth spatters on my white blouse. Next time I will wear a bib.

I’ve taken to photographing the inside of the more interesting bathrooms, and this one had a fun mirror. It was also very clean.

Although I would not say I was bowled over by my lunch experience, I would go back to Bowl’d. (But I might bring my own chopsticks.)

*I am of the opinion that mayo is disgusting and avoid it by any means possible.

No Fault in film of beloved book

19 Jun

fault in our stars

Yes, I was one of those who has been waiting for months for the opening of The Fault in Our Stars. I read the book a few years ago and fell in love with the characters and with John Green. In fact, I ran out and read almost all of his books soon thereafter. (I have yet to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but it is on my list.)

My husband and my twenty-one-year-old daughter had both read the book as well, so we decided that it was the perfect Father’s Day activity for the family. We all loved it.

I realize that the target audience for this movie was females from twelve to twenty. After all, it was based on a YA novel. But I was not the only person over 50 in that audience. (And not just because my husband was there with me.) Yes, the main characters are teens with cancer, but it’s a beautiful story with great humor and heart that should appeal to any age.

John GreenAnd  but it was not a sobfest of grandiose music that manipulates your tear ducts. In fact, the music was really good, the film stayed true to the book, and the acting was excellent. The two leads perfectly played Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort).

So whether you’re 16 or 60, there is plenty to love about this movie.

I can’t wait for the next John Green book to come out.

Goodbye Jodie’s!

15 Jun

20140613-141812.jpg

Although my plan was to start at the Berkeley end of Solano and eat my way down through the Albany end, I’d heard that Jodie’s Restaurant was closing June 14th, which means it wouldn’t be there by the time I got that far down the street. So I sort of cheated, skipping several blocks so that I could eat at Jodie’s.

Another technicality that I’m ignoring is that Jodie’s address isn’t actually on Solano—it’s on Masonic. But when you dine at one of the outside tables, you are mere feet from the cross walk where Masonic intersects with Solano, so I’m going to consider it a Solano Avenue spot.

Of course a lot of people knew that Jodie’s was closing, so I wasn’t the only one there at noon on Friday, its next-to-last day in business. The atmosphere was pretty lively, considering the end was near. One of their regulars was making a film, capturing the legendary diner’s last hours for posterity. He interviewed some of the patrons and even set up microphones around the counter area to catch all the ambient chatter. The fellow sitting to my right at the counter confessed to the filmmaker that Jodie’s closing was like losing a family member. Charles handed out postcards with the restaurant’s website address so customers could follow them if they were able to find a new space for Jodie to open up shop. (It’s a sad story involving building codes, sinks, a landlord, and lack of funds to go toward infrastructure.)

By the way, it’s not like I was eavesdropping. Everyone could hear everybody else. For those of you who have never stepped inside Jodie’s, the first word that comes to mind is tiny. Jodie and the other cook had to perform a tight pas de deux in the limited space they call a kitchen. It was really quite impressive. Up front Jodie’s grandson Charles took orders, served up the food, cleared away dishes, and even ran to the store around the corner when they ran out of soda.

Jodie's specials wall

Because I was a newbie, Charles gave me the run-down: I could order off the menu or I could choose anything off the wall of specials, except grits and pork chops, which they were out of. (He apologized.) Now usually, the specials at a restaurant include maybe two or three items tops. But Jodie’s specials were combinations of food that he’d been collecting for years, each one named after a customer and displayed on its own handmade sign somewhere on the wall. It was overwhelming. I also had to decide whether I wanted breakfast or lunch. Then he broke the bad news—because everyone and his cousin was coming to Jodie’s that day, it would be an hour and a half wait for food.

Bettye's sandwich (Jodie's)I knew it was a now-or-never situation, so I decided not to worry about all the copyediting that was waiting for me back at my desk. My daughter could not wait that long, so she opted for the leftover Zachary’s pizza back home in the frig. I ordered a Bettye sandwich, substituting fries for the potato salad. Dave arrived about a quarter past noon and ordered a Kathy sandwich. While I was ordering, one of the four tables opened up outside, so I gave up my stool and joined Dave out on the sunny sidewalk.

Many folks came by, some willing to wait 90 minutes for lunch and some just to say goodbye to Jodie and Charles. My sandwich arrived at 1:40 but had potato salad instead of fries. I didn’t have the heart to point it out because Charles was working so hard already, so I let Dave have it. (I don’t do potato salad). The sandwich was definitely yummy—beef brisket with melted swiss, carmelized onions, and a touch of BBQ sauce on a grilled sourdough bun.

I spotted Berkeleyside’s Emilie Raguso getting out of her car in front of Jodie’s. She said she wasn’t even hungry—she just had to come by to tell Jodie thanks for everything. (But I noticed she did have a slice of cheesecake after all.)

Dave was meeting someone and had to leave at 2:05, so he never got to see his sandwich. I went in and asked if they could sub in the fries for his potato salad (since he wouldn’t be there to eat it anyway.) A minute later his sandwich arrived, and Charles said the fries would come out separately. So I ate Dave’s (or I guess I should say Kathy’s) sandwich. It was BBQ pork on white bread and not nearly as flavorful or filling as Bettye’s. I probably should have asked for a takeout container to carry back half to Dave, but as I waited for my fries, I found myself eating the whole sandwich. I guess I was pretty darn hungry. But still, it was not very thoughtful on my part…Kathy's BBQ sandwich (Jodie's)

Of course once I’d finished Dave’s sandwich, I was too full for fries. But at 2:20 as I contemplated whether to go back in and cancel the order, a  man and woman arrived and learned that they weren’t taking any more orders. There were still plenty of customers waiting for their food, and it closed at 3:00, so that wasn’t totally unreasonable. But when the man asked the woman where she wanted to go instead, she totally lost it. Her face was red and she actually shook her fists as she yelled, “I don’t want to go anywhere else!” The man started to walk back from whence they came, but the woman yelled after him that they should at least get something to drink. He asked her gently what she wanted before going inside to order. Suffice it to say that she was unhappy with caffeine-free Coke, but when the poor man asked if she’d prefer coffee, she yelled at him that of course she didn’t want coffee—it was hot outside!

I heard one of the two men sitting at the table behind me say, “Now that’s a heart attack waiting to happen.”

Jodie's friesThen Emilie Raguso came outside with my fries. “It’s the least I could do,” she explained when I asked if she was helping them out.

I ate one. Then the tiny voice inside that occasionally tries to keep me on program at Weight Watchers said, “Don’t eat them just because they’re there.” But I also have this other voice inside that yells at me when I waste food.

So I approached the angry lady and the man and explained how I had these fries but I had to go and would they like them? The man looked grateful, and I could tell he was about to say yes, but the woman said no and waved them away. The man sighed and thanked me anyway. The two men who had also been watching the meltdown were still waiting for their food, so they were happy to take them.

Goodbye, Jodie’s. I hope you find a new space. Goodbye, angry lady. I hope you find peace.

Sunny Side Cafe now Sunny Side Up

12 Jun

Sunny Side Up decor

I have to say that the last time I went to the Sunny Side Café, I was disappointed in the service, so I was curious to see if things had changed.

Well, for one thing, it’s no longer the Sunny Side Café—it’s called Sunny Side Up. It was closed last week for some remodeling and reopened with the new name. We asked our waitress what had changed, and she said the kitchen had been renovated and it was under new ownership. Not having studied it closely before, I couldn’t say for sure, but I think it’s the same décor and menu. And when I investigated online, I saw the Sunny Side Café website advertising their Berkeley restaurant on Oxford and announcing that their Albany location would be reopening as Sunny Side Up.

But if the ownership changed, why would it still be on the former owner’s website?

In addition, on the wall hung a sign proudly proclaiming to have been voted East Bay’s “Best Belly-busting Brunch” in 2010. But why would the new owner leave up an award given to the former owner? Another mystery to solve…

Kylie @ Sunny Side Up

Kylie after eating her tofu scramble

I decided to order breakfast when I saw orange French toast on the menu (even though this journey is supposed to be lunching down Solano). Dave ordered a hamburger and home fries (or “home fires,” which Sunny Side Up restroom picis how they were listed on the menu). And this was the first lunch spot I’ve reviewed since my daughter Kylie came home from college for the summer, so she joined us and chose the tofu scramble.

The service seems to have improved. My latté came quickly, and we were all served glasses of water (my favorite kind—tall and icy). Our food arrived within ten minutes, and more than one waitperson checked in on us to make sure we had everything we needed.

My orange French toast was mighty tasty and one of the more reasonably priced items on the menu. Dave said his hamburger was fine but not as good as Barney’s and more expensive. His home fries, however, were quite tasty—crispy without being overcooked. (I admit to stealing more than one bite.) Kylie was excited by the look of her tofu scramble, which was a bright golden hue interspersed with colorful veggies. Alas, her hopes were dashed. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t that flavorful. She dubbed it “satisfactory and filling.”

The color of Kylie’s dish prompted a discussion on the proper way to pronounce turmeric. I suppose it is one of those words that I see in text but rarely hear in conversation, so I’ve always said “tur MERR ick.” Kylie and Dave both say “TOO mer rick,” which is apparently the correct way. Learn something new every day…

pig hangers

This adorable pig hanger was on the inside of the bathroom door.

The ambience is friendly and homey, with wheels and fake flowers in sconces hanging on the walls and decorative plates displayed along with frying pans. And the bathroom décor was cute—so cute I took pictures, which I don’t normally do in the loo.

Overall? On a beautiful day, I wouldn’t mind taking advantage of their outdoor seating and having some of that orange French toast again…

 

 

 

Waters hitches across USA and lives to write the tale

11 Jun

John Waters close up

Book Passage in Corte Madera was packed last Saturday night with standing room only. John Waters was there promoting his latest book Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America. This movie director, actor, writer, and beloved subversive decided at 66 years old to see what it would be like to hitch his way from Baltimore to San Francisco.

Just about everyone who knew him thought it was a bad idea, but he had the time because he was “between movies”—an expression that he explains is what you call it when you can’t get anyone to fund your current film project—and he admitted it may have been his version of a mid-life crisis.

So he packed a small bag, made a sign, and hit the road. His assistant insisted that he take some good socks in case of bad weather and got a pair for him at a store he referred to as “Ray,” which we finally figured out was REI. (My guess is that John is not the outdoorsy type.)John Waters in conversation

He had pretty good luck getting rides and people were nice to him. Among those who picked him up were a minister’s wife, a rock band, and an elected official. Some took him a few miles, and one took him all the way across Kansas. About a third of the people who picked him up knew who he was, but many hadn’t heard of him or didn’t believe that he was really the director of Hairspray and Pink Flamingoes. Having worked with Johnny Depp, he was sure someone would ask him what the movie star was like, but nobody did. He said that most of them wanted to talk, and he was happy to listen.

He did get caught in the rain and recommends ponchos over umbrellas. (It’s hard to hold an umbrella and a sign at the same time.) And he once spent ten hours riding on a glove compartment in between two seats. But he made it to San Francisco in 21 rides in nine days. Shortly after he arrived, he had to fly back to the East Coast for a fashion event. He commented that he was comfortable both hitchhiking and flying in private jets, but what he couldn’t stand was coach.

His book is an interesting mix of fiction and nonfiction. He begins with tales of what he imagines would be the best and worst hitchhiking experiences before he recounts his actual adventures on the road.

me & John WatersI was lucky to be third in line to get my book signed, so I saw the staff preparing the signing area. They made sure he had two permanent markers, which is standard issue at these readings. But when he saw them, he said he needed a ballpoint pen, so an employee went foraging for one.  Just a tiny bit of trivia.

It occurred to me that John was taking a journey similar to Dan Hoyle’s—they both travelled long distances collecting stories. Of course John hitched across America primarily to gather material for a book (and probably so he could say he’d done it!), while Dan studied people to recreate on stage. But they both heard a lot of stories, and now they’re sharing them with us.

 

 

 

Each and Every Thing Dan does is magic

9 Jun

dan hoyleI had the pleasure of seeing Dan Hoyle’s new show Each and Every Thing in preview at the Marsh in San Francisco. Dan is an expert at recreating voices of people he has met and he uses his great skill to create entire casts of distinct characters, which he has done quite successfully twice before with The Real Americans and Tings Dey Happen.

In this show Dan portrays his best friend, his parents, several people in Calcutta, and himself as a child, among others. Dan is a performer with real heart and optimism who believes it is his mission to listen to and learn the stories of the people he meets so that he can share them with audiences. He ventures into spaces quite different from those he grew up in around the Bay Area and begins conversations where he checks any judgment at the door. In this way he is able to spend time with drug dealers in Chicago and a redneck in Nebraska with an Aryan Nation tattoo.

The focus in Each and Every Thing is how we experience the world in this digital age, which interestingly enough, ends up being much more personal for the man in this one-man show. While attempting face-to-face contact with folks, he observes groups of people who are supposedly hanging out together but are all on his or her separate smart phone. So in the process of gathering material for this show, he ends up attending a digital detox retreat.

As a part of this journey, his friend and personal mentor, who is originally from Calcutta, suggests that Dan go to coffeehouse there to experience the intellectual discussion that it’s famous for. (They don’t say go “to the coffeehouse”—just “to coffeehouse.” It’s like how the Brits say “to hospital” instead of “to the hospital.” Don’t ask me why.) His friend wisely counsels him to become his most “basic Dan,” which fortunately for us, means he does what he does best—share his stories.

This show is scheduled to be performed through July 13, so you still have time to get your ticket! http://themarsh.org/each_and_every_thing/dan-hoyle/

 

 

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